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Source:

Calvino, Italo. (1986). The Uses of Literature. San Diego, New York,
London. Harcourt Brace & Company
pp. 3 to 27

Cybernetics and Ghosts

Lecture delivered in Turin and other Italian cities,


November 1967.

It all began with the first storyteller of the tribe. Men were
already exchanging articulate sounds, referring to the practical
needs of their daily lives. Dialogue was already in existence, and
so were the rules that it was forced to follow. This was the life of
the tribe, a very complex set of rules on which every action and
every situation had to be based. The number of words was
limited, and, faced with the multiform world and its countless
things, men defended themselves by inventing a finite number of
sounds combined in various ways. Modes of behavior, customs,
and gestures too were what they were and none other, constantly
re-

3
1
peated while harvesting coconuts or scavenging for wild roots,
while hunting lions or buffalo, marrying in order to create new
bonds of relationship outside the clan, or at the first moments of
life, or at death. And the more limited were the choices of phrase
or behavior, the more complex the rules of language or custom
were forced to become in order to master an ever-increasing
variety of situations. The extreme poverty of ideas about the world
then available to man was matched by a detailed, all-embracing
code of rules.
The storyteller began to put forth words, not because he
thought others might reply with other, predictable words, but to
test the extent to which words could fit with one another, could
give birth to one another, in order to extract an explanation of the
world from the thread of every possible spoken narrative, and
from the arabesque that nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates
performed as they unfolded from one another. The figures
available to the storyteller were very few: the jaguar, the coyote,
the toucan, the piranha; or else father and son, brother-in-law and
uncle, wife and mother and sister and mother-in-law. The actions
these figures could perform were likewise rather limited: they
could be born, die, copulate, sleep, fish, hunt, climb trees, dig
burrows, eat and defecate, smoke vegetable fibers, make
prohibitions, transgress them, steal or give away fruit or other
things-things that were also classified in a limited catalogue. The
storyteller explored the possibilities implied in his own language
by combining and changing the permutations of the figures and
the actions, and of the objects on which these actions could be
brought to bear. What emerged were stories, straight-

2
forward constructions that always contained correspondences or
contraries-the sky and the earth, fire and water, animals that flew
and those that dug burrows-and each term had its array of
attributes and a repertoire of its own. The telling of stories allowed
certain relationships among the various elements and not others,
and things could happen in a certain order and not in others:
prohibition had to come before transgression, punishment after
transgression, the gift of magic objects before the trial of courage.
The immobile world that surrounded tribal man, strewn with signs
of the fleeting correspondences between words and things, came
to life in the voice of the storyteller, spun out into the flow of a
spoken narrative within which each word acquired new values and
transmitted them to the ideas and images they defined. Every
animal, every object, every relationship took on beneficial or
malign powers that came to be called magical powers but should,
rather, have been called narrative powers, potentialities contained
in the word, in its ability to link itself to other words on the plane
of discourse.
Primitive oral narrative, like the folk tale that has been
handed down almost to the present day, is modeled on fixed
structures, on, we might almost say, prefabricated
elements-elements, however, that allow of an enormous number of
combinations. Vladimir Propp, in the course of his studies of
Russian folk tales, came to the conclusion that all such tales were
like variants of a single tale, and could be broken down into a
limited number of narrative functions. Forty years later Claude
L6vi-Strauss, working on the myths of the Indians of Brazil, saw
these as a system of logical operations be-

3
tween permutable terms, so that they could be studied
according to the mathematical processes of combinatorial
analysis.
Even if the folk imagination is therefore not boundless
like the ocean, there is no reason to think of it as being like a
water tank of small capacity. On an equal level of civilization,
the operations of narrative, like those of mathematics, cannot
differ all that much from one people to another, but what can
be constructed on the basis of these elementary processes can
present unlimited combinations, permutations, and
transformations.

Is this true only of oral narrative traditions? Or can it be


maintained of literature in all its variety of forms and
complexities? As early as the 1920s, the Russian Formalists
began to make modern stories and novels the object of their
analysis, breaking down their complex structures into
functional segments. In France today the semiological school
of Roland Barthes, having sharpened its knives on the
structures of advertising or of women's fashion magazines, is
at last turning its attention to literature; the eighth issue of the
magazine Communications was devoted to the structural
analysis of the short story. Naturally enough, the material that
lends itself best to this kind of treatment is still to be found in
the various forms of popular fiction. If the Russians studied the
Sherlock Holmes stories, today it is James Bond who provides
the structuralists with their most apt exemplars.
But this is merely the first step in the grammar and syntax
of narrative fiction. The combinatorial play of

4
narrative possibilities soon passes beyond the level of content
to touch upon the relationship of the narrator to the material
related and to the reader: and this brings us to the toughest set
of problems facing contemporary fiction. It is no coincidence
that the researches of the French structuralists go hand in hand
(and sometimes coexist in the same person) with the creative
work of the "Tel Quel" group. For the latter-and here I am
paraphrasing statements by one of their authorized in-
terpreters-writing consists no longer in narrating but in saying
that one is narrating, and what one says becomes identified
with the very act of saying. The psychological person is
replaced by a linguistic or even a grammatical person, defined
solely by his place in the discourse. These formal repercussions
of a literature at the second or third degree, such as occurred in
France with the nouveau roman of ten years ago, for which
another of its exponents suggested the word "scripturalism,"
can be traced back to combinations of a certain number of
logico-linguistic (or better, syntactical-rhetorical) operations,
in such a way as to be reducible to formulas that are the more
general as they become less complex.

I will not go into technical details on which I could only


be an unauthorized and rather unreliable commentator. My
intention here is merely to sum up the situation, to make
connections between a number of books I have recently read,
and to put these in the context of a few general reflections. In
the particular way today's culture looks at the world, one
tendency is emerging

5
from several directions at once. The world in its various aspects is
increasingly looked upon as discrete rather than continuous. I am
using the term "discrete" in the sense it bears in mathematics, a
discrete quantity being one made up of separate parts. Thought,
which until the other day appeared to us as something fluid,
evoking linear images such as a flowing river or an unwinding
thread, or else gaseous images such as a kind of vaporous cloud-to
the point where it was sometimes called "spirit" (in the sense of
"breath")-we now tend to think of as a series of discontinuous
states, of combinations of impulses acting on a finite (though
enormous) number of sensory and motor organs. Electronic brains,
even if they are still far from producing all the functions of the
human brain, are nonetheless capable of providing us with a
convincing theoretical model for the most complex processes of
our memory, our mental associations, our imagination, our
conscience. Shannon, Weiner, von Neumann, and Turing have
radically altered our image of our mental processes. In the place of
the ever-changing cloud that we carried in our heads until the
other day, the condensing and dispersal of which we attempted to
understand by describing impalpable psychological states and
shadowy landscapes of the soul – in the place of all this we now
feel the rapid passage of signals on the intricate circuits that
connect the relays, the diodes, the transistors with which our skulls
are crammed. Just as no chess player will ever live long enough to
exhaust all the combinations of possible moves for the thirty-two
pieces on the chessboard, so we know (given the fact that our
minds are chessboards with

6
hundreds of billions of pieces) that not even in a lifetime
lasting as long as the universe would one ever manage to make
all possible plays. But we also know that all these are implicit
in the overall code of mental plays, according to the rules by
which each of us, from one moment to the next, formulates his
thoughts, swift or sluggish, cloudy or crystalline as they may
be.
I might also say that what is finite and numerically
calculable is superseding the indeterminateness of ideas that
cannot be subjected to measurement and delimitation; but this
formulation runs the risk of giving an oversimplified notion of
how things stand. In fact, the very opposite is true: every
analytical process, every division into parts, tends to provide an
image of the world that is ever more complicated, just as Zeno
of Elea, by refusing to accept space as continuous, ended up by
separating Achilles from the tortoise by an infinite number of
intermediate points. But mathematical complexity can be
digested instantly by electronic brains. Their abacus of only
two numerals permits them to make instantaneous calculations
of a complexity unthinkable for human brains. They have only
to count on two fingers to bring into play incredibly rapid ma-
trices of astronomical sums. One of the most arduous
intellectual efforts of the Middle Ages has only now become
entirely real: I refer to the Catalan monk Raymond Lully and
his ars combinatoria.
The process going on today is the triumph of dis-
continuity, divisibility, and combination over all that is flux, or
a series of minute nuances following one upon the other. The
nineteenth century, from Hegel to Dar-

7
win, saw the triumph of historical continuity and biological
continuity as they healed all the fractures of dialectical
antitheses and genetic mutations. Today this perspective is
radically altered. In history we no longer follow the course of a
spirit immanent in the events of the world, but the curves of
statistical diagrams, and historical research is leaning more and
more toward mathematics. And as for biology, Watson and
Crick have shown us how the transmision of the characteristics
of the species consists in the duplication of a certain number of
spiral-shaped molecules formed from a certain number of acids
and bases. In other words, the endless variety of living forms
can be reduced to the combination of certain finite quantities.
Here again, it is information theory that imposes its patterns.
The processes that appeared most resistant to a formulation in
terms of number, to a quantitative description, are not
translated into mathematical patterns.
Born and raised on quite different terrain, structural
linguistics tends to appear in terms of a play of contraries
every bit as simple as information theory. And linguists, too,
have begun to talk in terms of codes and messages, to attempt
to establish the entropy of language on all levels, including
that of literature.
Mankind is beginning to understand how to dismantle and
reassemble the most complex and unpredictable of all its
machines: language. Today's world is far richer in words and
concepts and signs than the world that surrounded primitive
man, and the uses of the various levels of language are a great
deal more complex. Using transformational mathematical
patterns, the

8
American school led by Chomsky is exploring the deep structure
of language, lying at the roots of the logical processes that may
constitute no longer a historical characteristic of man, but a
biological one. And extreme simplification of logical formulas, on
the other hand, is used by the French school of structural
semantics headed by A. J. Greimas. This school analyzes the
narrative quality of all discourse, which may be reduced to a ratio
between what they call actants.
After a gap of almost thirty years, a "Neo-Formalist" school
has been reborn in the Soviet Union, employing the results of
cybernetic research and structural semiology for the analysis of
literature. Headed by a mathematician, Kholmogorov, this school
carries out studies of a highly academic scientific nature based on
the calculation of probabilities and the quantity of information
contained in poems.
A further encounter between mathematics and literature is
taking place in France, under the banner of hoaxing and practical
joking. This is the Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Oulipo),
founded by Raymond Queneau and a number of his
mathematician friends. This almost clandestine group of ten
people is an offshoot of the Coll6ge de Pataphysique, the literary
society founded in memory of Alfred Jarry as a kind of academy
of intellectual scorn. Meanwhile, the researches of Oulipo into the
mathematical structure of the sestina in the work of the Provençal
troubadours and of Dante are no less austere than the studies of
the Soviet cyberneticists. It should not be forgotten that Queneau
is the author of a book called Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes,

9
which purports to be not so much a book as the rudimentary
model of a machine for making sonnets, each one different
from the last.

Having laid down these procedures and entrusted a


computer with the task of carrying out these operations, will
we have a machine capable of replacing the poet and the
author? Just as we already have machines that can read,
machines that perform a linguistic analysis of literary texts,
machines that make translations and summaries, will we also
have machines capable of conceiving and composing poems
and novels?
The interesting thing is not so much the question whether
this problem is soluble in practice-because in any case it would
not be worth the trouble of constructing such a complicated
machine-as the theoretical possibility of it, which would give
rise to a series of unusual conjectures. And I am not now
thinking of a machine capable merely of "assembly-line"
literary production, which would already be mechanical in
itself. I am thinking of a writing machine that would bring to
the page all those things that we are accustomed to consider as
the most jealously guarded attributes of our psychological life,
of our daily experience, our unpredictable changes of mood
and inner elations, despairs and moments of illumination. What
are these if not so many linguistic "fields," for which we might
well succeed in establishing the vocabulary, grammar, syntax,
and properties of permutation?
What would be the style of a literary automaton? I
believe that its true vocation would be for classicism.

10
The test of a poetic-electronic machine would be its ability to
produce traditional works, poems with closed metrical forms,
novels that follow all the rules. In this sense the use so far
made of machines by the literary avant-garde is still too human.
Especially in Italy, the machine used in these experiments is an
instrument of chance, of the destructuralization of form, of
protest against every habitual logical connection. I would there-
fore say that it is still an entirely lyrical instrument, serving a
typical human need: the production of disorder. The true
literature machine will be one that itself feels the need to
produce disorder, as a reaction against its preceding production
of order: a machine that will produce avant-garde work to free
its circuits when they are choked by too long a production of
classicism. In fact, given that developments in cybernetics lean
toward machines capable of learning, of changing their own
programs, of developing their own sensibilities and their own
needs, nothing prevents us from foreseeing a literature-machine
that at a certain point feels unsatisfied with its own
traditionalism and starts to propose new ways of writing,
turning its own codes completely upside down. To gratify
critics who look for similarities between things literary and
things historical, sociological, or economic, the machine could
correlate its own changes of style to the variations in certain
statistical indices of production, or income, or military expen-
diture, or the distribution of decision-making powers. That
indeed will be the literature that corresponds perfectly to a
theoretical hypothesis: it will, at last, be the literature.

11
II
Now, some of you may wonder why I so gaily announce
prospects that in most men of letters arouse tearful laments
punctuated by cries of execration. The reason is that I have
always known, more or less obscurely, that things stood this
way, not the way they were commonly said to stand. Various
aesthetic theories maintained that poetry was a matter of
inspiration descending from I know not what lofty place, or
welling up from I know not what great depths, or else pure
intuition, or an otherwise not identified moment in the life of
the spirit, or the Voice of the Times with which the Spirit of
the World chooses to speak to the poet, or a reflection of
social structures that by means of some unknown optical
phenomenon is projected on the page, or a direct grasp on the
psychology of the depths that enables us to ladle out images of
the unconscious, both individual and collective; or at any rate
something intuitive, immediate, authentic, and all-embracing
that springs up who knows how, something equivalent and
homologous to something else, and symbolic of it. But in
these theories there always remained a void that no one knew
how to fill, a zone of darkness between cause and effect: how
does one arrive at the written page? By what route is the soul
or history or society or the subconscious transformed into a
series of black lines on a white page? Even the most
outstanding theories of aesthetics were silent on this point. I
felt like someone who, due to some misunderstanding, finds
himself among people who are discussing business that is no
business

12
of his. Literature as I knew it was a constant series of attempts
to make one word stay put after another by following certain
definite rules; or, more often, rules that were neither definite
nor definable, but that might be extracted from a series of
examples, or rules made up for the occasion-that is to say,
derived from the rules followed by other writers. And in these
operations the person "1," whether explicit or implicit, splits
into a number of different figures: into an "I" who is writing
and an "I" who is written, into an empirical "I" who looks over
the shoulder of the "I" who is writing and into a mythical "I"
who serves as a model for the "I" who is written. The "I" of the
author is dissolved in the writing. The so-called personality of
the writer exists within the very act of writing: it is the product
and the instrument of the writing process. A writing machine
that has been fed an instruction appropriate to the case could
also devise an exact and unmistakable "personality" of an
author, or else it could be adjusted in such a way as to evolve
or change "personality" with each work it composes. Writers,
as they have always been up to now, are already writing
machines; or at least they are when things are going well. What
Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or
intuition is nothing other than finding the right road
empirically, following one's nose, taking short cuts, whereas
the machine would follow a systematic and conscientious route
while being extremely rapid and multiple at the same time.
Once we have dismantled and reassembled the process of
literary composition, the decisive moment of literary life will
be that of reading. In this sense, even

13
though entrusted to machines, literature will continue to be a
"place" of privilege within the human consciousness, a way of
exercising the potentialities contained in the system of signs
belonging to all societies at all times. The work will continue to be
born, to be judged, to be destroyed or constantly renewed on con-
tact with the eye of the reader. What will vanish is the figure of
the author, that personage to whom we persist in attributing
functions that do not belong to him, the author as an exhibitor of
his own soul in the permanent Exhibition of Souls, the author as
the exploiter of sensory and interpretive organs more receptive
than the average.... The author: that anachronistic personage, the
bearer of messages, the director of consciences, the giver of
lectures to cultural bodies. The rite we are celebrating at this
moment would be absurd if we were unable to give it the sense of
a funeral service, seeing the author off to the Nether Regions and
celebrating the constant resurrection of the work of literature; if
we were unable to introduce into this meeting of ours something
of the gaiety of those funeral feasts at which the ancients
re-established their contact with living things.
And so the author vanishes-that spoiled child of ignorance-to
give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know
that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine
works.

III
At this point I think I have done enough to explain why it is
with a clear conscience and without regrets that I state that my
place could perfectly well be occupied

14
by a mechanical device. But I am sure that many of you will
remain rather unconvinced by my explanation, finding that my
attitude of oft-repeated abnegation, of renunciation of the
writer's prerogatives out of the love of truth, must surely be
wrong; and that under all this something else must be lurking. I
already feel that you are searching for less flattering motives
for my attitude. I have nothing against this sort of inquiry.
Behind every idealistic position that we adopt we can find the
nittygritty of practical interest, or, even more often, of some
basic psychological motivation. Let us see what my psy-
chological reaction is when I learn that writing is purely and
simply a process of combination among given elements. Well,
then, what I instinctively feel is a sense of relief, of security.
The same sort of relief and sense of security that I feel every
time I discover that a mess of vague and indeterminate lines
turns out to be a precise geometric form; or every time I
succeed in discerning a series of facts, and choices to be made
out of a finite number of possibilities, in the otherwise
shapeless avalanche of events. Faced with the vertigo of what
is countless, unclassifiable, in a state of flux, I feel reassured by
what is finite, "discrete," and reduced to a system. Why is this?
Does my attitude contain a hidden element of fear of the
unknown, of the wish to set limits to my world and crawl back
into my shell? Thus my stance, which was intended to be
provocative and even profane, allows of the suspicion that, on
the contrary, it is dictated by some kind of intellectual
agoraphobia, almost a form of exorcism to defend me from the
whirlwinds that literature so constantly has to face.
Let us attempt a thesis contrary to the one I have

15
developed so far (this is always the best way to avoid getting
trapped in the spiral of one's own thoughts). Did we say that
literature is entirely involved with language, is merely the
permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions?
But is the tension in literature not continually striving to
escape from this finite number? Does it not continually
attempt to say something it cannot say, something that it does
not know, and that no one could-ever know? A thing cannot be
known when the words and concepts used to say it and think it
have not yet been used in that position, not yet arranged in that
order, with that meaning. The struggle of literature is in fact a
struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches
out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs
literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the
dictionary.
The storyteller of the tribe puts together phrases and
images: the younger son gets lost in the forest, he sees a light
in the distance, he walks and walks; the fable unwinds from
sentence to sentence, and where is it leading? To the point at
which something not yet said, something as yet only darkly
felt by presentiment, suddenly appears and seizes us and tears
us to pieces, like the fangs of a man-eating witch. Through the
forest of fairy tale the vibrancy of myth passes like a shudder
of wind.
Myth is the hidden part of every story, the buried part, the
region that is still unexplored because there are as yet no
words to enable us to get there. The narrator's voice in the
daily tribal assemblies is not enough to relate the myth. One
needs special times and places, exclusive meetings; the words
alone are not enough, and we need a whole series of signs with
many meanings, which is

16
to say a rite. Myth is nourished by silence as well as by words. A
silent myth makes its presence felt in secular narrative and
everyday words; it is a language vacuum that draws words up into
its vortex and bestows a form on fable.
But what is a language vacuum if not a vestige of taboo, of a
ban on mentioning something, on pronouncing certain names, of a
prohibition either present or ancient? Literature follows paths that
flank and cross the barriers of prohibition, that lead to saying what
could not be said, to an invention that is always a reinvention of
words and stories that have been banished from the individual or
collective memory. Therefore myth acts on fable as a repetitive
force, obliging it to go back on its tracks even when it has set off
in directions that appear to lead somewhere completely different.
The unconscious is the ocean of the unsayable, of what has
been expelled from the land of language, removed as a result of
ancient prohibitions. The unconscious speaks-in dreams, in verbal
slips, in sudden associations-with borrowed words, stolen
symbols, linguistic contraband, until literature redeems these ter-
ritories and annexes them to the language of the waking world.
The power of modern literature lies in its willingness to give
a voice to what has remained unexpressed in the social or
individual unconscious: this is the gauntlet it throws down time
and again. The more enlightened our houses are, the more their
walls ooze ghosts. Dreams of progress and reason are haunted by
nightmares. Shakespeare warns us that the triumph of the Renais-
sance did not lay the ghosts of the medieval world who

17
appear on the ramparts at Dunsinane or Elsinore. At the height of
the Enlightenment, Sade and the Gothic novel appear. At one
stroke Edgar Allan Poe initiates the literature of aestheticism and
the literature of the masses, naming and liberating the ghosts that
Puritan America trails in its wake. Lautr6amont explodes the
syntax of the imagination, expanding the visionary world of the
Gothic novel to the proportions of a Last judgment. In automatic
associations of words and images the Surrealists discover an
objective rationale totally opposed to that of our intellectual logic.
Is this the triumph of the irrational? Or is it the refusal to believe
that the irrational exists, that anything in the world can be
considered extraneous to the reason of things, even if something
eludes the reasons determined by our historical condition, and also
eludes limited and defensive so-called rationalism?
So here we are, carried off into an ideological landscape
quite different from the one we thought we had decided to live in,
there with the relays of diodes of electronic computers. But are we
really all that far away?

IV

The relationship between combinatorial play and the


unconscious in artistic activity lies at the heart of one of the most
convincing aesthetic theories currently in circulation, a formula
that draws upon both psychoanalysis and the practical experience
of art and letters. We all know that in matters of literature and the
arts Freud was a man of traditional tastes, and that in his

18
writings connected with aesthetics he did not give us any
pointers worthy of his genius. It was a Freudian art historian,
Ernst Kris, who first put forward Freud's study of word-play as
the key to a possible aesthetics of psychoanalysis. Another
gifted art historian, Ernst Gombrich, developed this notion in
his essay on Freud and the psychology of art.
The pleasure of puns and feeble jokes is obtained by
following the possibilities of permutation and transformation
implicit in language. We start from the particular pleasure
given by any combinatorial play, and at a certain point, out of
the countless combinations of words with similar sounds, one
becomes charged with special significance, causing laughter.
What has happened is that the juxtaposition of concepts that we
have stumbled across by chance unexpectedly unleashes a pre-
conscious idea, an idea, that is, half buried in or erased from
our consciousness, or maybe only held at arm's length or
pushed aside, but powerful enough to appear in the
consciousness if suggested not by any intention on our part, but
by an objective process.
The processes of poetry and art, says Gombrich, are
analogous to those of a play on words. It is the childish
pleasure of the combinatorial game that leads the painter to try
out arrangements of lines and colors, the poet to experiment
with juxtapositions of words. At a certain moment things click
into place, and one of the combinations obtained-through the
combinatorial mechanism itself, independently of any search
for meaning or effect on any other level-becomes charged with
an unexpected meaning or unforeseen effect which the
conscious mind would not have arrived at deliberately:

19
an unconscious meaning, in fact, or at least the premonition of an
unconscious meaning.
So we see that the two routes followed by my argument have
here come together. Literature is a combinatorial game that
pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material, independent
of the personality of the poet, but it is a game that at a certain
point is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is
not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but
has slipped in from another level, activating something that on
that second level is of great concern to the author or his society.
The literature machine can perform all the permutations possible
on a given material, but the poetic result will be the particular
effect of one of these permutations on a man endowed with a con-
sciousness and an unconscious, that is, an empirical and historical
man. It will be the shock that occurs only if the writing machine is
surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and of his
society.
To return to the storyteller of the tribe, he continues
imperturbably to make his permutations of jaguars and toucans
until the moment comes when one of his innocent little tales
explodes into a terrible revelation: a myth, which must be recited
in secret, and in a secret place.

I am aware that this conclusion of mine contradicts the most


authoritative theories about the relationship between myth and
fable.

20
Until now it has generally been said that the fable is a
"profane" story, something that comes after myth, a corruption
or vulgarization or secularization of it, or that fable and myth
coexist and counterbalance each other as different functions of
a single culture. The logic of my argument, however-until
some more convincing new demonstration comes along to
blow it sky high-leads to the conclusion that the making of
fables precedes the making of myths. Mythic significance is
something one comes across only if one persists in playing
around with narrative functions.
Myth tends to crystallize instantly, to fall into set
patterns, to pass from the phase of myth-making into that of
ritual, and hence out of the hands of the narrator into those of
the tribal institutions responsible for the preservation and
celebration of myths. The tribal system of signs is arranged in
relation to myth; a certain number of signs become taboo, and
the "secular" storyteller can make no direct use of them. He
goes on circling around them, inventing new developments in
composition, until in the course of this methodical and
objective labor he suddenly gets another flash of
enlightenment from the unconscious and the forbidden. And
this forces the tribe to change its set of signs once more.
Within this general context, the function of literature
varies according to the situation. For long periods of time
literature appears to work in favor of consecration, the
confirmation of values, the acceptance of authority. But at a
certain moment, something in the mechanism is triggered, and
literature gives birth to a movement in the opposite direction,
refusing to see

21
things and say things the way they have been seen and said until
now.
This is the main theme of a book called Le due
tensioni (The Two Tensions), which comprises the previously
unpublished notes of Elio Vittorini (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 1967).
According to Vittorini, literature until now has been too much the
"accomplice of nature," that is, of the mistaken notion of an
immutable nature, a Mother Nature, whereas its true value
emerges only when it becomes a critic of the world and our way of
looking at the world. In one chapter that may well state his
definitive position, Vittorini seems to be starting from scratch on a
study of the place of literature in human history. As soon as
writing and books are born, he says, the human race is divided
into a civilized partthe part of the race that long ago took the step
into the Neolithic Age-and another part (called savage) that got
stuck in the Paleolithic, and in which the Neolithics could not
even recognize their ancestors: a part of humanity that thinks that
things have always been the way they are, just as they think that
masters and servants have always existed. Written literature is
born already laden with the task of consecration, of supporting the
established order of things. This is a load that it discards
extremely slowly, in the course of millennia, becoming in the
process a private thing, enabling poets and writers to express their
own personal troubles and raise them to the level of
consciousness. Literature gets to this point, I would add, by means
of combinatorial games that at a certain moment become charged
with preconscious subject matter, and at last find a voice for these.
And it is by this road to freedom opened up by literature that

22
men achieved the critical spirit, and transmitted it to collective
thought and culture.

VI
Concerning this double aspect of literature, here, toward the
end of my little talk, it is relevant to mention an essay by the
German poet and critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger, "Topological
Structures in Modern Literature, " which I read in the Buenos
Aires magazine Sur (May-June 1966). He reviews the numerous
instances of labyrinthine narratives from ancient times up to
Borges and Robbe-Grillet, or of narratives one inside another like
Chinese boxes, and he asks himself the meaning of modem
literature's insistence on these themes. He evokes the image of a
world in which it is easy to lose oneself, to get disoriented-a world
in which the effort of regaining one's orientation acquires a
particular value, almost that of a training for survival. "Every
orientation, " he writes, "presupposes a disorientation. Only
someone who has experienced bewilderment can free himself of
it. But these games of orientation are in turn games of
disorientation. Therein lies their fascination and their risk. The
labyrinth is made so that whoever enters it will stray and get lost.
But the labyrinth also poses the visitor a challenge: that he
reconstruct the plan of it and dissolve its power. If he succeeds, he
will have destroyed the labyrinth; for one who has passed through
it, no labyrinth exists." And Enzensberger concludes: "The
moment a topological structure appears as a metaphysical
structure the game loses its dialectical balance, and

23
literature turns into a means of demonstrating that the world is
essentially impenetrable, that any communication is impossible.
The labyrinth thus ceases to be a challenge to human intelligence
and establishes itself as a facsimile of the world and of society."
Enzensberger's thesis can be applied to everything in
literature and culture that today-after von Neumann-we see as a
combinatorial mathematical game. The game can work as a
challenge to understand the world or as a dissuasion from
understanding it. Literature can work in a critical vein or to
confirm things as they are and as we know them to be. The
boundary is not always clearly marked, and I would say that on
this score the spirit in which one reads is decisive: it is up to the
reader to see to it that literature exerts its critical force, and this
can occur independently of the author's intentions.
I think this is the meaning one might give to my most recent
story, which comes at the end of my book t zero. In this story we
see Alexandre Dumas taking his novel The Count of Monte
Cristo from a supernovel that contains all possible variants of the
life story of Edmond Dantès. In their dungeon Edmond Dant6s
and the Abbot Faria go over the plans for their escape and wonder
which of the possible variants is the right one. The Abbot Faria
digs tunnels to escape from the castle, but he always goes wrong
and ends up in ever-deeper cells. On the basis of Faria's mistakes
Dantès tries to draw a map of the castle. While Faria, by the sheer
number of his attempts, comes close to achieving the perfect
escape, Dantès moves toward imagining the perfect prison-

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the one from which no escape is possible. His reasons are
explained in the passage I shall now quote:

If I succeed in mentally constructing a fortress from which it is


impossible to escape, this imagined fortress either will be the
same as the real one-and in this case it is certain we shall never
escape from here, but at least we will achieve the serenity of
knowing we are here because we could be nowhere else-or it will
be a fortress from which escape is even more impossible than
from here-which would be a sign that here an opportunity of
escape exists: we have only to identify the point where the
imagined fortress does not coincide with the real one and then
find it.

And that is the most optimistic finale that I have managed to


give to my story, to my book, and also to this essay.